Here are recipes for fifty perfect pies, including apple (of course), five ways with rhubarb, lemon chiffon, several blueberry pie variations, galettes, and more.
Learn the tricks to making enviable baked goods and gluten-free crust while enjoying Kate Lebo's wonderfully humorous, thoughtful, and encouraging voice. In addition to recipes, Lebo invites readers to ruminate on the social history, the meaning, and the place of pie in the pantheon of favorite foods.
When you have mastered the art, science and magic of creating the perfect pie in Pie School, everyone will want to be your friend.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
ON RECIPES (or, How We Know What We Think We Know)
Some recipes promise perfection, some promise ease. Some promise comfort and health. I can promise only that if you make a pie, you are joining a long line of bakers who thought that delivering food in an edible container was the best idea since the advent of the wheat farmer.
Auguste Escoffier (aka the father of modern French cooking) wrote, “No theory, no formula, and no recipe can take the place of experience.” I interpret this statement in two ways.
Experience is the best teacher; our axioms tell us that. With experience as my teacher and my senses as my guide, I’ve learned how to write recipes, then abandon them altogether, giving precedence to the materials of the pie—the fruit, the weather, my mood—in a way that lets them determine the final outcome. This is what I’ll attempt to teach you to do too.
Experience is the best muse, especially when it comes to writing about food. That’s why fantastic food writing is, like the best pie, ofted wedded to the “I.” That’s why M.F.K. Fisher, Calvin Trillin, Anthony Bourdain, Gabrielle Hamilton, and many of our best food writers all compose in the first person and use personal experience to frame their subjects. That’s why personal blogs are a popular (and populist) medium for food writing, and why I began this book by introducing myself. Food is a matter of taste. We understand it best when we understand it subjectively.
Subjectivity flouts the ambitions of the perfect recipe, that magic formula that promises consistent results the way McDonald’s promises a consistent Quarter Pounder. They’re a necessary fiction that helps us get dinner on the table.
But this book isn’t about dinner. It’s about dessert. Pie, then, is an opportunity to think about recipes and cooking in a different way—a way that privileges imagination over perfection.
You’ll need to read these recipes. I mean really read them. Many will tell you to adjust seasonings to taste, which literally means taste the food as you’re preparing it. The filling should be delicious before baking. If it isn’t, or—more likely—if it’s just so-so, add salt, lemon, spice, or sugar as needed. You’ll know the filling is just right when you don’t want to stop eating it. Tasting as you go may seem obvious to some of you, but others may be used to strictly following recipes, scanning the text for quick measurements, or being told exactly how much x to put in y. A quick scan isn’t going to work very well for my recipes, I’ll tell you that right now. Fruit changes from season to season, and it’s impossible to predict how juicy or flavorful it will be. Pie plates come in all shapes and sizes, so once again I can’t tell you exactly how much fruit will fit perfectly, which affects the amount of sugar and spice and thickener you might or might not use. And ovens! Don’t get me started on ovens. I’ll write more about that later.
The point is your materials and tools are your materials and tools—including your hands, which will handle dough in your particular way. I will give you guidelines to help you judge how much fruit, fat, sugar, and spice to use, but “perfect” pie is a product of good judgment and risk-taking, practice and luck. To me, the perfect recipe is one that helps the reader understand the form of the food (in this case, pie) and leaves the rest open to interpretation.
That said, I understand it’s intimidating for a novice baker to freestyle a pie when he or she hasn’t even made one yet. That’s why you’ll find two kinds of recipes here: the kind that teach the form by providing clear guidance and instruction for each step of the way, and the kind that leaves the details up to your imagination and whatever you can find in your pantry.
The best way to make pie is to learn how to trust yourself and follow your nose—and the rest of your senses. That’s a poet’s advice too. Like a slice of pie, my advice should be taken with a grain of salt: I’m teaching you how to make pie my way, knowing everyone brings a unique taste and touch to the mixing bowl. As Richard Hugo writes in the opening pages of The Triggering Town, his classic text on poetry-making, “Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write.” For our purposes, replace “write” with “make pie.” Remember that Hugo also wrote, “At all times keep your crap detector on.” Which is good advice in general.
Pie is a powerful symbol of desire. By “desire” I mean appetite and sex. It’s a messy promise demurely packaged in dough, a hopelessly sexy treat made of ripe fruit—which, botanically speaking, could also be called an ovary. Warrant’s 1990 glam-metal anthem “Cherry Pie ” and the 1999 teen flick American Pie made sex and pie the stuff of recent pop culture, popularizing an innuendo already ripe for the picking. “American Pie” is, of course, also the title of Don McLean’s smash hit about “the day the music died.” These artifacts tell us that Americans conflate national identity with sex and appetite and loss of innocence, all the mythic triggers of Eve’s apple wrapped in one of the most calorie-dense substances mankind has ever invented. Talk about temptation.
Pie is also a symbol of femininity (“Almost all women at one time feel the urge to bake an old-fashioned pie”) and masculinity (“Frequently the spur is the husband with a yen for a wonderful pie his mother used to make”). If you read old cookbooks closely (these quotes are from the 1965 edition of Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook), you’ll see the gender stereotypes split between eating and making. Women make; men eat.
I hope that most of us are, by now, irritated with these gender roles; there are plenty of men who like to make pie and as many women who like to eat it. Most modern cookbooks avoid gender stereotypes altogether, opting for a heads-down focus on the art of pie-making, without a look around at the cultural landscape or an errant pronoun to be found. Bless them. But I’m going to say this as clearly as I can: when you make pie, you engage with very old domestic legends that gird our national identity, our gender politics, and our food history. It’s better to admit that than to ignore how “American as,” “easy as,” “pie in the sky,” and “grandma’s apron strings” all shrink-wrap gender, Americana, hard work, and hope into easily digestible sound bites. Our clichés tell us we think something is easy if it is sweet; that women are sweet; that America is the apple pie, the woman who bakes it, and the man who eats it. The democratizing crust over filling, the practical luxury of eating a sweet you can hold in your hand, how homey a slice looks on farm tables, in bygone urban automats—that’s American too. Our clichés tell us the opposite of what we know; we know that pie is not easy to make, nor is the making or eating of it bound by gender, nor is pie a strictly American treat, nor is it even usually apple.
As a poet, I’ve been trained to look at language as a sign of deeper structures, something that constructs meaning and wields power. To me, a cliché is an X on a treasure map. Something valuable lurks beneath the surface. Like the X-vent of a double crust pie, a cliché invites you to open it for further inspection.
George W. Bush once said, “We ought to make the pie higher.” He meant opportunity (I think?), but I mean pie. Let’s make it higher. Let’s lift it out of midcentury kitschy stereotypes and give it a new job.
Make as much pie as you want to. Eat as much as you want to. Whenever you want. Whoever you are.
How’s that for easy as, sweet as, American as pie?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AS AMERICAN AS APPLE PIE?
"Pie is the American synonym of prosperity and its varying contents the calendar of the changing seasons. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished."
—NEW YORK TIMES, MAY 3, 1902
What does it mean to be American as apple pie? Some trace the connection to the legend of Johnny Appleseed, who prepared the West for settlement by planting apple trees wherever he wandered. Some trace it to the apple orchards of colonial America, how apple cider was at one time safer to drink than water, how its edible container of pastry made apple pie a practical choice for schoolchildren and fieldworkers. Pie is a treat of European origin, brought over by colonialists and adapted to suit the so-called New World. We didn’t invent pie; we invented American pie.
“Mom and apple pie” is slang for “something good and right we can all agree on,” gifted to American English by soldiers during World War II, who supposedly used this as a stock answer for why they went to war. “American as motherhood and apple pie” was the next—and most audacious—version of the phrase. Staking national claim to motherhood suggests we can make something American simply by saying that it is.
My impulse is to complicate the phrase, apply it to things that are less stereotypical, less nationalistic. To make the cliché interesting again is to play with what American and apple pie can be. John Lehndorff, former executive director of the American Pie Council, puts it well: “When you say that something is ‘as American as apple pie,’ what you’re really saying is that the item came to this country from elsewhere and was transformed into a distinctly American experience.” The cliché can signal what it attempts to conceal: there is nothing easy about presuming what American means, then or now. We expect apple pie to be a comfort, not a challenge. It reminds us of a time when all food was homemade, when “just like Grandma used to make” wasn’t a use- ful advertising slogan because Grandma actually used to make . . . whatever it was. But the slogan has been used to sell food since the late 1800s—far before our grandmothers’ time—which means the only thing true about that truism is how much we want to eat food made with love. That’s nostalgia at work, whitewashing the past.
Nostalgia’s etymology is homecoming layered with ache. It’s the thing that defines Americana—an attraction to things past, a longing for simpler, better times that may not have ever existed. Apple pie makes nostalgia edible.
Therein lies its genius. As a crown relic of Americana, apple pie doesn’t have to be novel to be interesting, which is saying something for a culture obsessed with all things new. While its cultural importance can be generalized by cliché, its culinary importance is sincere: apple pie reminds us that homemade food sustains us in deep, hard-to-describe ways. The time and skill it takes to make a pie shows us that we are cared for. That it’s not about having time, but about making it. Through the rituals of language and dessert, what apple pie was is also what it is: homespun, authentic, and humble, a food that uses the fruits of harvest while symbolizing the agricultural roots of our nation, a sweet that satisfies like a meal, nurturing while it treats.